07/26/2012 2:19PM

Hovdey: Horse with two names getting a second chance

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Shigeki Kikkawa
John Scott will make his return to stakes competition in the San Diego after a pair of allowance wins.

In calling the field postward for the $200,000 San Diego Handicap on Saturday, Del Mar trumpeter Les Kepics might want to play a few bars from “St. James Infirmary” or riff on the opening music from “General Hospital.”

Rail Trip, a golden oldie at 7, butchered his foot last November stumbling at the start of his final appearance of a frustrating East Coast campaign and is lucky to be walking on it, let alone rounding into a hint of the form that brought him victories in races like the 2009 Hollywood Gold Cup and 2010 Californian.

Take Control, a son of Horse of the Year power couple A.P. Indy and Azeri, made all his headlines just standing in a sales ring – first as a $7.7 million yearling buy-back then as a $1.9 million 2-year-old purchase – until he resurrected his career at age 5 with an authoritative score in a Hollywood Park allowance race a month ago.

And then there is John Scott – the horse with two names – who has spent most of his five years on this earth roaming the paddocks of Harris Farms in California’s Central Valley rather than earning his keep with trainer Carla Gaines at the track. John Harris, his owner and breeder, was justified in looking at John Scott like a teenager who kept finding reasons not to leave home.

“He was born here,” Harris said, “and I was afraid he’d die here before we could get him back to the races.”

He made it, and now John Scott will be making his return to stakes competition in the San Diego off a pair of sharp allowance wins at Hollywood Park. In addition to Rail Trip and Take Control, he will be facing last year’s winner, Tres Borrachos, Native Diver Handicap winner Kettle Corn, Tiznow Stakes winner Mobilized, and Prayer for Relief, winner of 2011 derbies in Iowa, Louisiana and West Virginia.

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The San Diego, at a mile and one-sixteenth, is one of those Win and You’re In events that offers the winner a free pass to a Breeders’ Cup event. In this case it is the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, to be run at Santa Anita on Nov. 3. In 2010 the San Diego winner, Dakota Phone, nipped Morning Line at the end of the BCDM at Churchill Downs, while last year, also at Churchill, Tres Borrachos was a noble third to Caleb’s Posse and Shackleford at 30-to-1.

Harris and Gaines know better than to plan too far ahead with John Scott, but at least they can dream. A son of Bertrando out of a Deputy Minister mare, he was cut out to be a good one from the start.

“Have you looked at his Norfolk lately?” wondered Gaines as she watched John Scott unwind from his Thursday morning gallop. “Five wide on both turns and still he comes running to get beat two lengths by Lookin At Lucky.”

That was John Scott’s third start after winning two races at Del Mar, including the I’m Smokin Stakes. The Norfolk margin was 2 1/4 lengths, to be accurate, but that’s nitpicking as well as beside the point after Harris and Gaines got a look at John Scott back at the barn that day.

“He was three-legged lame,” Harris recalled. “Walking like Chester from ‘Gunsmoke.’ Fortunately it was a minor fracture in a hind leg that was very operable and had a good prognosis for a full recovery.”

That was Oct. 4, 2009. Over the next two years John Scott was in and out of the track, but Gaines was never satisfied that he was ready for hard training. Once he even came back as a gelding, but that didn’t make a difference.

“Truth be told, the day I sent him out after the Norfolk I figured I’d never see him again,” Gaines said. “It’s hard to say goodbye to a horse like him. It was clear he had a lot of ability, but he also had a lot of character.”

Then came last fall, and like the change in the seasons John Scott was back at the barn. This time he stuck around.

“I can’t tell you how excited I was the way he trained,” Gaines said. “I started him out in a sprint because I knew he could, and I thought he’d win, but he didn’t.”

John Scott was fourth in that April 21 comeback on a summery afternoon at Santa Anita, his first race in nearly 31 months. As prepared as he might have been physically, his head was not quite back in the game.

“He was pretty fractious in the paddock before the race,” Gaines said. “And then after the race he had heat stroke. I think I’ve had only one other horse do that in 25 years.”

John Scott bounced back quickly to win his next pair of starts, most recently a half-length decision over Rail Trip. On paper, he could be the speed of the San Diego without even trying.

“He had every right to level off in that last race,” Harris noted. “But he was very game. He even had one of his ears pricked at the end.”

The “John” in John Scott is self-evident, while the “Scott” comes from Scott Gross, who was a co-owner when the horse raced at 2 and still gets ample credit as co-breeder. What is not clear is why two experienced racing men would tempt misfortune and name a horse after themselves, a no-no in the racetrack karma handbook if ever there was one.

“I’ve heard that,” Harris said. “Although I’m not sure it’s been proven out.”

Then again, maybe John Scott’s already had all the bad luck he deserves.

“Knock on wood, he’s going good now,” Harris said. “He’s a good horse who’s had a lot of setbacks, but he’s certainly been worth the wait.”